The Constants and Variables of a Special Relationship

Three new books explore how the US-Israel bond has come to be. While they offer radically different interpretations of the history, each convincing in its own way, they fail to provide an answer to the most burning question: Where is that relationship going?

This article is kindly sponsored by the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA


Does the world really need another voice weighing in on the US-Israel relationship? That was the question Walter Russell Mead asked himself when he sat down to write his most recent book,
The Arc of a Covenant—as well as, in all likelihood, the question the readers of this essay are asking themselves right now. Mead answered himself in the affirmative. Despite a plethora of books concerning the American-Israeli bond, he writes, none of the existing literature describes the relationship in a satisfactory manner. When it comes to Israel, the United States’ role in helping create the Jewish state, and the global forces that shaped the special relationship between the two countries, misconceptions abound. 

Mead was not alone; at least two other authors felt that the plethora of misconceptions needed to be addressed. While Mead focuses heavily on the strategic factors shaping the US-Israel relationship during the mid-twentieth century, David Tal’s The Making of an Alliance deals with the decision-making process of American administrations regarding Israel and the importance of shared values between the two countries. Eric Alterman’s book, We Are Not One, for its part, focuses on the American Jewish public and the debate over Israel in America. 

In all three works, the authors sought to paint a clearer picture of the American-Israeli relationship: by highlighting its historical foundations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by clarifying the distinctions between Judaism and Zionism, by contemplating the uniqueness of the US-Israel relationship, and by speculating which of the relationship’s building blocks are likely to change in the future and which are constant. Despite the similar objectives, given the different perspectives of the authors, the three books paint very different pictures of the relationship, highlighting different elements as key components which have shaped the bond. 

One principal area of disagreement is the controversial notion of the Israel lobby and its impact on US foreign policy. Underpinning the Israel lobby theory, often attributed to the eponymous 2007 book by political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, is the idea that pro-Israel interest groups sway American foreign policy in the Jewish State’s favor— even when doing so runs counter to the best interests of American citizens. This argument has been fiercely criticized: whilst some have dubbed it a conspiracy theory, others have contended that while it is a factor in American decision-making, its decisiveness is debatable. While none of the three authors fully embrace the theory, they each take a starkly different approach to addressing the lobby’s importance. Of the three, Tal takes the most benign stance. Acknowledging the existence of the lobby, he nevertheless stops short of attributing many policy decisions to its hand. Rather, he stresses how successive presidents of the United States, no matter the party or the era, have been predisposed to taking the pro-Israel stance whenever a relevant issue arose, and that Congress too has tended to naturally see issues from Israel’s point of view. Tal also highlights how America was soundly pro-Zionist before the creation of modern Israel, citing examples of American Protestants’ praise for the Land of Israel and its people from as far back as 1799, and enumerating the pro-Zionist proclivities of presidents as early as Woodrow Wilson. This argument proposes that the lobby likely had less of a role in shaping US foreign policy than did preexisting beliefs and values among the public. Thus, according to Tal, the lobby was largely pushing at an open door.

Mead, for his part, dismisses the lobby theory vigorously. Using a pointed historical analogy, he compares the theory’s adherents to the astronomers of the 1840s who searched the skies in vain for the nonexistent “Planet Vulcan.” Mead takes issue with the claim of a secretive, influential, and omnipotent lobby for multiple reasons. First, he notes that lobbies are a normal part of politics, and so the existence of an Israel lobby shouldn’t set off any alarm bells. Second, he contends that the historical record does not back the assertion that the lobby has long controlled US foreign policy. If a lobby called the shots, as these “Vulcanists” suggest, we would expect American policy to be consistently and unwaveringly pro-Israel. However, Mead points out that American policy toward Israel has been anything but consistent. The Interwar period is a case in point. American administrations indeed supported Zionism from afar; but had Jews indeed controlled US foreign policy during WWII, then America would have acted more resolutely to save European Jewry from the throes of the Holocaust.

Furthermore, Mead depicts the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations as more focused on Egypt than on Israel, courting President Gamal Abdel Nasser at Israel’s expense. Breaking sharply from Tal, who identifies various ways in which the US helped Israel throughout its first decades as a state, Mead states that “Israel did not grow strong because it had American support.” Rather, he goes on to explain, “it acquired American support because it had grown strong.” Thus, Mead points mainly to strategic and geopolitical interests, rather than internal ones (such as the unconditional support of a secretive lobby), as a major explanation for why the United States grew to adopt pro-Israel policies. 

On the issue of the lobby, Alterman’s stance is diametrically opposed to Mead’s. Unlike the other two authors, he closely examines and engages critically with Walt and Mearsheimer’s original thesis. Building on the premise that an Israel lobby does exist, and that it is more powerful than most lobbies, Alterman underscores the domineering tactics of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Thanks to “the power of money to dictate the parameters of allowable speech,” the lobby puts immense pressure on public discourse (at all levels, from undergraduate courses to Presidential candidates) to prevent criticism of Israel. Nevertheless, Alterman does not fully subscribe to the lobby theory, pointing to three main flaws in the argument. First, he says, it over-attributes foreign policy decisions to the influence of the Israel lobby. For example, Walt and Mearsheimer cite the lobby as a critical element influencing the decision of  the US to invade Iraq. But, Alterman points out, other factors—such as the ideologies and beliefs of President Bush and his advisors—may have been larger driving forces. Second, and relatedly, the theory incorrectly assumes that the lobby is the only force at play shaping Middle East policy. Third, the theory does not make a careful enough distinction between the American Jewish public and the self-appointed leaders of the American Jewish community—two groups very far apart politically. That said, Alterman is quick to note that Walt and Mearsheimer’s essay contains “not a hint of antisemitism…or even what might fairly be called ‘anti-Zionism’”; the vitriolic reaction to the work, he writes, was probably the best example of the lobby’s quest to control the discourse around Israel. 

Of the three authors, Alterman provides the superior analysis of the role of the Israel lobby. He is the only one who seriously engages with the theory, and his aforementioned critiques of the theory’s proponents are logical and insightful. In contrast, Mead’s main argument against the lobby—that US foreign policy has not been consistently pro-Israel—does not hold up to scrutiny. The other authors both offer a convincing rebuttal to the claim that America acted against Jewish and Israeli interests in the mid-twentieth century. Here, Alterman provides an alternative explanation for why the US did not intervene to stop the Holocaust: because no major Jewish organization asked the US government to do so, rather than that the Administration openly defied Jewish-American pleas to act. Be that as it may, it should be noted here that this debate over Holocaust intervention does not actually provide insight into the crux of the issue, which is whether America was pro-Zionist or not. The two authors here are debating over whether Jewish leaders influenced American foreign policy towards Jews, which is not the same as the claim that Zionist leaders influenced American foreign policy towards Israel. Whether or not Jews controlled American policy regarding the latter’s approach to the Holocaust does not really tell us anything about whether the Zionist lobby held sway over American foreign policy at the time. This is an important distinction to make, and Mead’s failure to distinguish between pro-Jewish and pro-Israel policies weakens his argument. 

Furthermore, Tal offers a rebuttal of Mead’s idea that America only started to support Israel once it had become strong. “Israel’s strategic importance was not the reason for the special relationship between Israel and the United States, but its result,” he writes. Devoting a much larger section of his book than Mead to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Tal comes to a different conclusion: US policy, even during that era, was always pro-Israel, in one way or another. His evidence is superior to Mead’s, as it includes a comprehensive account of policy decisions taken during that era. His conclusion, that America has consistently favored Israel, is therefore more in line with the historical record than Mead’s summary. 

However, unlike Alterman, Tal’s argumentation fails to address the effects of the lobby on American civil discourse, since his inquiry is mostly confined to decision-making in Washington. Thus, Tal’s dismissal of the lobby misses one of the most important consequences of its actions—the parameters of the public discourse on Israel. While Alterman, who insists on the indirect, rhetorical effects of the lobby’s actions, agrees with Tal (and Mead) that its direct influence on foreign policy is overstated by proponents of the lobby theory, this insistence makes his argument stand out. Alterman provides the most comprehensive—and in my opinion, accurate—discussion of the topic, and I find his argument the most compelling.

Weighing the authors’ contrasting views, their altercation over the Israel lobby is just the tip of the iceberg. More broadly, their perspectives diverge regarding the key elements that bind the US and Israel together. On this topic, the main point of contention between Mead and Alterman concerns the role that Jews have played in crafting the modern relationship between the two countries. 

Alterman spends a good portion of his book describing in detail the divisions within the American Jewish community regarding Israel. He catalogues the history of the American debate over Zionism, making various provocative claims regarding the bond between Israel and American Jews. First, he states that the American stance towards Israel is more informed by emotion than logic, partly because many Jews in the US view Israel as a “fantasy” rather than as a real—and flawed—state. Second, and perhaps most boldly, he asserts that despite being a pervasive anti-Semitic trope, the concept of “dual loyalty”—the idea that American Jews may feel more allegiance towards Israel than towards the United States—is an “undeniably genuine phenomenon.” In support of this, he points to “the presence of the Israeli flag at many synagogues,” the singing of “Hatikvah” instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at numerous Jewish schools in the United States, as well as the explicit proclamation of dual loyalty by celebrated Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick, who in 2006 said that “I have a dual loyalty—total loyalty to the country where I live and the same feeling toward Israel.” Alterman is brave to wade into this debate in the first place, and all the more so to side with those who believe that there is some truth in this idea. Alongside these provocative claims, he argues that support for Israel is perhaps the most central aspect of modern American Jewish identity. Quoting Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a prominent Jewish leader, he states that failure to support Israel is pretty much “the only offense for which Jews can be ‘excommunicated’ in the US today.” While Hertzberg made this observation in 1977, Alterman maintains that this view “has only hardened over time.” Because of these factors, Alterman believes that much of Israel’s success in achieving US support can be attributed to what he terms the “long-distance nationalism” of many American Jews.

Mead, for his part, takes a wholly different approach to the topic. He very much downplays the Jewish role, indeed to such an extent that he notes that he “was frequently tempted to subtitle this book ‘Don’t Blame Israel on the Jews.’” Instead, he points to various other factors and groups that helped shape the relationship. One of the main factors is strategic interests; but he also considers the shared values of the two nations. Stressing particularly the role of Christians in the pursuit of the Zionist agenda, Mead chronicles how the creation and survival of Israel could mostly be attributed to non-Jews. For example, he cites the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, designed in part to limit Jewish immigration to the US, as “the most important single act of legislation in American history from the standpoint of the State of Israel and the Zionist movement.” Mead continues: “If the United States had not voted to restrict immigration so drastically, it is probable that the country of Israel would not exist today.” Once the first-choice destination was no longer available, the unintended consequence of this policy was to force European Jewish emigrants to the next best place: Palestine. Nor was it American Jews or the Israel lobby who saved Israel from stillbirth in 1948 either, Mead argues. Rather, the savior was Stalin, whose crucial decision to sell arms to the Jews of Palestine resulted from Soviet grand strategy rather than any fondness for the Jewish people. Compared to Alterman, Mead devotes little time to divisions within the American Jewish community, rather tilting the spotlight towards gentiles. From the antisemitic leaders of late nineteenth-century Europe seeking to solve their “Jewish problem” to American evangelicals currently infatuated with Israel, Mead points out that support for Zionism and for Israel has generally come most strongly from Christians. They, he claims, often do not have Jewish interests at heart. 

Broadly stated, Alterman’s view is that forces within the Jewish community have fundamentally shaped the US-Israel relationship, while Mead asserts that the relationship is more driven by strategic interests between great powers, these seldom factoring in the desires or well-being of Jewish people. Tal, for his part, is largely uninterested in Jewish agency. Instead, he sticks to a simple argument: Mead, in effect, has it backwards. “The strategic alliance did not create special relations between the two countries but was the outcome of those special relations,” he writes. The special relationship, in turn, is the outcome of three factors that Tal calls “the constants”—religion, values, and history. These constants, rather than ephemeral strategic interests, created and sustained this relationship. Because of these factors and the way Israel has been favorably embedded in the American mind since its founding, the US has chosen “ideals over interests” time and time again. In a similar manner to the workings of the lobby, the intricate dynamics of the Jewish community do not play a significant role in the singing of Israel’s praises by American pastors, politicians, and common people since the 1700s. To emphasize the point that support for Israel far exceeds Washington’s corridors of power, Tal quotes a statistic from 2013, whereby “55 percent of American Christians believe that God gave Israel to the Jewish people”—hammering home the argument that a special regard for Israel is ingrained in America.

In this instance, it is hard to say that one author or another offers a more perceptive analysis. Mead probably goes too far in his downplaying of the role of Jewish people in shaping the relationship; critics such as Alterman are not wrong to point out that a major blind spot of Mead’s book is that it overlooks Jewish agency. That said, Mead is not wrong to call attention to non-Jewish agency. Rather than seeking to erase the role of Jews in this history, Mead attempts to fight the idea of “Jewcentricity,” the belief that Jews hold more influence over world events than they actually do. In a way, Mead’s and Alterman’s theses do not directly contradict each other; they are simply giving different weights to the various factors that have shaped the relationship. What is more, there is a good deal of common ground between the two authors, which serves as a basis for Tal’s “constants” theory. While not using the same terminology, Mead and Alterman both note certain key values and ideals which are shared by the two countries and their peoples, and which have mostly stayed constant with time. Between the three authors, the list of these constants includes religion, scripture, mythology, democracy, liberal values, and history. While Alterman and Mead point to additional adhesive elements of the relationship—such as strategic interests—the three authors see eye to eye on the significance of the constants. This shared belief leads them to share an assessment of what the future holds: a continuation of the status quo. This consensus, albeit surprising, I believe is misguided.

To all three authors, the steadfast nature of the constants bestows on the US-Israel relationship an air of stability and resilience. Tal foresees no major changes so long as the constants remain, and Alterman does not predict any major changes anytime “soon.” While Mead notes the collapse of the American “post-historical foreign policy consensus” and the rise of alternative ideas championed by the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, he believes that the relationship is as strong and relevant as ever. However, there are many signs, which all three authors are missing, indicating that the constants are changing; perhaps not in the next few years, but surely at some point in the future. 

The constants were really only constant in the time period of the authors’ studies, spanning roughly from the birth of the United States to the present. But today, the shared values and commonalities are starting to erode from both sides. First of all, the common history between the two countries as pioneering and settling nations remains relevant only to a shrinking majority of American society. In America, these aspects of the country’s past are no longer viewed by all as sources of national pride. In today’s American mainstream, they are viewed in a much more balanced light, and by many on the left as a shameful disgrace. That Israel is reminiscent of this time period in American history, and indeed is still actively in the midst of its settlement project, wins it no fans among this crowd. In terms of governance, liberal democratic values are being challenged in both countries, and particularly from the political right. The January 6, 2021 attack in America and the recent judicial reform proposals in Israel call into question whether either nation is really still anchored to its liberal democratic roots. 

Another “value” (if one can call it that) which may be eroding in America is orientalism. As Alterman notes, the Palestinian view of the conflict only entered the American discourse in recent decades; while the post-9/11 and Trump eras have seen their fair share of Islamophobia, Muslim perspectives and voices have enjoyed a greater visibility in American society. A recent article has noted that Muslims are voting and running for office in record numbers and are beginning to be portrayed in a positive light in American pop culture. As America opens up to Muslim views, Americans are likely to become less biased against Muslims and also less biased against Palestine, which might well trickle up to decision-making circles. This could lead US policy to be more even-handed—or even pro-Palestinian—in the future.

Furthermore, the political right and left are deeply divided in both countries. Here too, they are moving in opposite directions, further deepening the divisions. According to data from Gallup, 37 percent of Americans identify as conservative, while 36 percent identify as moderate and 25 as liberal. This gap between the percentages identifying with the right and left has been slowly closing for years. Younger Americans are more liberal, signaling that the country will continue its leftward shift in the coming decades. However, the trends in Israel are completely flipped. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, 62 percent of Israelis consider themselves on the right, while 24 percent say they are centrists and only 11 percent identify as leftists. On top of this, the gap is widening. And, unlike America, whose youth is more liberal, Israel’s youth is strikingly more conservative than older generations of Israelis. 73 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds in Israel identify as on the right, while only 46 percent of 65+ year-olds do. 

As Alterman correctly points out, much of the Israeli rightward swing in past decades can be attributed to post-Soviet Jewish immigration into Israel. This immigration influx would be a one-off blip on the radar rather than a sea change, if it weren’t part of much wider demographic trends. The birth rate of the ultra-Orthodox population far outpaces that of secular Jews. Since the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox people fall on the right politically, Israel is likely to only become more conservative, and the ideological gap between the two nations to expand further. That said, it should be noted that forecasting builds on a great deal of speculation. For example, it assumes constant political leaning of Israelis throughout their lifespan. For all we know, younger Israelis may become more liberal as they age, in line with the current breakdown.

The fertility rate differential also has implications for the religiosity of the Jewish state. Like the other constants, this too is an area where Israel and the US are growing farther apart. Israel’s National Economic Council recently projected that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up only a little more than a tenth of Israel’s population today, will account for nearly a quarter by 2050. This demographic shift away from secularism and towards stricter interpretations of Judaism differs sharply from America, which is becoming more secular and less Christian over time. The Pew Research Center projects that, if trends continue, Christians will become a minority in the US by 2070. While this is driven mainly by a rise in secularism and atheism, the current decline in Christianity’s (and particularly Protestantism’s) dominance is also due to the steady rise of other religions. The raw number increase may be small, but the visibility and power of non-Christians is increasing significantly. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib recently became the first Muslim women in Congress, and they certainly won’t be the last. Mehmet Oz, a Republican, nearly won his bid to become the first Muslim US Senator in 2022. The most serious challenger to the 2016 Democratic nomination was Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish. Overall, Christians are losing their exclusive grip over the US political system.

The implications of all this are unknown; the views of secular Americans—a growing and increasingly influential demographic—is an aspect of the relationship on which the authors spend very little time. Understanding this elusive demographic is critical for understanding the future of America, and its relationship with Israel. Nonreligious Americans may be just as supportive of Israel as Christians (there is no evidence to suggest otherwise), but it is no less logical to expect that as Christians become a less powerful demographic in America, the shared “Judeo-Christian heritage” will play a less prominent role in politics, and that interest in Israel will decrease in general.

Combined, all of the observations cited above signal that the two countries are moving in vastly different directions, ideologically and morally, foreshadowing the possible end of an era of “shared values” between the two countries. Per Tal’s argument, the end of shared values could spell the end of the special relationship. 

Even those, like Mead, who put a greater emphasis on strategic and geopolitical interests at the expense of shared values would have little cause for optimism. These too resolutely suggest that Israel is fast becoming a less important strategic asset to America. First, following the end of the Cold War, America’s Middle East policy underwent a sweeping overhaul. As Mead points out, much of America’s military support for Israel was born of realist concerns as part of an overarching scheme to contain Soviet influence. In the twenty-first century, the US no longer needs to worry about preventing Soviet access to Arab oil fields or preventing the Middle East from embracing communism. Second, the rise of China has led the US to shift its focus away from the Middle East and towards East Asia. While the “pivot to Asia” has not yet fully transpired, it is likely to do so in the coming years. This will divert American resources away from the Middle East and will call into question whether the firehose of spending geared towards beefing up the Israeli military is really serving America’s vital interests. Finally, in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are gradually turning against military presence in the Middle East. While in real time the Iraq War was initially supported by the majority of Americans, far fewer view it in retrospect as a good decision. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan, completed in 2021, received bipartisan support, after many questioned whether an overmilitarized response to radical Islam was truly the best approach. Whether the US follows the conservative approach of retrenchment from the Middle East or the liberal alternatives to disproportionate military response, the current level of cooperation with Israel will not prevail. Relatedly, as Alterman points out, many pundits now voice the view that the Arab-Israeli conflict is “over” (an opinion he vehemently disagrees with); the popularization of this view should lead Americans to question their role in the peace process, also a form of engagement with Israel. 

All of the above said, there are also convincing counterarguments to each of these propositions. The war in Ukraine has reintroduced the idea of conventional great-power warfare and caused Western states to bulk up their militaries. While the Soviet threat is no longer, the Russian threat is alive and kicking. To counter both Russia and China, the US will need new weaponry. Since, as Mead and Tal point out, the US often uses Israel as a training ground and a showcase site for new weaponry, there are grounds for expecting the strategic relationship to deepen. Furthermore, a 2020 public opinion poll by the Chicago Council revealed that American public support for US alliances and military bases in the Middle East has grown rather than shrunk; 61 percent of Americans still view the Middle East as the most important region for US security interests. Thus, Israel’s strategic use to the US may not be declining. Security ties may persist or even strengthen, likely to sustain the alliance. 

If the security concerns remain unchanged despite the massive geopolitical shifts of recent years, then it is the ephemeral interests which have become constant, and the former constants which have become ephemeral. In this light, assuming that the constants are the core of the US-Israel bond, the relationship may still be in jeopardy even if shared interests hold Israel and the US close to one another in the short term. Interests aside, while Alterman might view the Israel lobby and the loyalty to Israel of American Jews as potential constants (something the other two authors would take issue with), he himself notes that loyalties are changing. These constants may well turn out to be ephemeral, too. 

And this is why I come to a different conclusion than the authors. All three of them, in my view, overestimate the extent to which the constants are unchanging, and their historical focus prevents them from seeing how the coming decades could be radically different from the ones that preceded this one. I am not saying that the relationship between the US and Israel will necessarily collapse, but I do believe that a significant change is on the horizon. This does not undercut their conclusion; rather it is a logical emanation thereof. Their collective argument, that the constants are paramount in the relationship, leads me to believe that the relationship cannot persist in its current state if the constants are in fact changing. A multitude of signs indicate that they are, and thus it is likely that the relationship will enter a new era in the coming decades. What this new relationship will look like is yet to be seen; it can be assumed, though, that it will be weaker than the one we have seen so far.

 

David Ṭal, The Making of an Alliance: The Origins and Development of the US-Israel Relationship, Cambridge University Press, 2022, pp. 416..

Walter Russell Mead, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish people, Alfred A. Knopf, 2022, pp. 672.

Eric Alterman, We are Not One: A History of America’s Fight over Israel,  Basic Books, 2022, pp. 512.

The author would like to thank the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and its director, Prof. Dov Waxman.

 

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